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What lasts is what you start with. –Charles Wright
My very first sermon was titled “No Man Is an Island.” Okay, not very original, I’ll give you that. Another pastor/poet named John Donne beat me to the punch by well nigh four centuries, in 1624. But it said all I knew to say at the time and took all of twelve minutes to preach. I describe the sermon as my “very first” to underscore time’s passage. It’s now been over four decades since I held forth that Sunday morning at Bowman Baptist Church outside Lake City, AR in the late spring of ’77. My campus ministers at Arkansas State University, Benny Clark and Glenda Fontenot, had surprised
me with the request, which became the closest thing to an anointing I’d ever known.
I’d never prepared a sermon before, had hardly ever even stood behind a pulpit, except maybe to read scripture. So I arrived early, a knot of nerves. Looking back, it surprises me that I was alone. I’d probably asked my parents and friends to stay away, given my jitters. Or maybe the august occasion simply didn’t rate. Who knows? In northeast Arkansas, there’s a preacher, usually a Baptist, under every rock.
The small box of a sanctuary was warm, the two-dozen or so worshippers kind. I had hair back then, lots of it. An afro to be exact. Given my nervousness, I must have struck them as a cross between Marjoe Gortner and Don Knotts. (Younger readers might want to Google these two names.) One especially empathetic deacon stood up unannounced before the sermon and had us join hands, bow our heads, and pray that Jesus’ peace would settle this young man’s heart and give him the strength to proclaim God’s Word. That helped. But what carried me through did not happen until a moment later.
I’d taken the long walk up the center aisle and climbed the two steps to the pulpit. I felt at sea, perched in a crow’s nest. I somehow mustered the courage to look out across the little sanctuary before my opening prayer. It was quiet, except for the occasional siss of traffic slipping past on Highway 18 in the drizzly morning. Then, there—I saw him. Sitting on the back row to my left, Coley Johnson. My grandfather had made the drive all the way in from Dyess, quite a hike for a man disabled by emphysema and bad cataracts. But he was right there, in that pew, sitting off by himself against the aisle, and what I noticed, even then in that wobbly moment, was how my Pentecostal grandfather was trying hard to sit up straight and proper, how his back, bent by years under the sun as a sharecropper, rose up straight in that moment. Never underestimate the virtue of pride.
When my first full collection of poems, Chicken Train: Poems from the Arkansas Delta, was released about a month ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of response. The book was a labor big on love and small on resources. I whittled away on some of these poems for years. Others came in a flash. My daughter, Hannah Proffitt-Allee, put lots of sweet attention and creativity into designing the book’s look, both inside and out. We still glory in her “Johnny Cash-inspired” cover. Gradually, with the generous support of my editor, Matthew Lippman, many friends, John Dillon and Steve Cash from the one and only Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and my publisher at Middle Island Press, Christina Taylor, the Chicken Train left the depot.
See what happened? What began as a little DIY project became the gracious gift of community.
Which brings all this back around to you, especially you who have spent your good money to purchase Chicken Train, or have passed the word on to others, or have even taken the time to offer an Amazon review. Know that all your energy has given this little locomotive steam. Sure, it’s the little train that could, but, heck, we’ve climbed as high as #203 in Amazon’s “Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Regional & Cultural > United States.” A sub-category height I’m glad to attain, and, because of you, I take certain pride in.
As lonely and hard as writing can be at times, I am never without communion with God and community with you. I hunker under, sure, and sometimes the isolation can feel heavy. But the silence and solitude necessary to the effort are ever full and never truly empty, whatever my fleeting feelings might say.
“No Man Is an Island” is really the only poem I have ever lived. It may just be my one sermon. I preach it time and again, except these days I do so with inclusive language and ecological intent. I’ll keep preaching it—until the lived reality of these words ascends into that great “cloud of witnesses,” where faithful and loving folk like Coley Johnson, even now, take great pride and chorus me through from the balcony blue, steeling my bent back.
No Man Is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
--from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”
By John Donne